Mountain Lions in Missouri

Mountain Lion roams inside an enclosure in Illinois Prairie Zoo.

  • Female Cat Noted in Shannon County
  • Increasing Number of Reported Sightings 
  •   Ozarks May be Perfect Wilderness Nesting Area
The discovery of a female mountain lion in Shannon County last month is a recent development in a 20-year saga. Mountain lions undoubtedly will continue to filter into Missouri from western states. The question is whether Missouri will find ways to live with this native species. (Missouri Department of Conservation photo)
The discovery of a female mountain lion in Shannon County last month is a recent development in a 20-year saga. Mountain lions undoubtedly will continue to filter into Missouri from western states. The question is whether Missouri will find ways to live with this native species. (Missouri Department of Conservation photo)

By Jim Low

A famous author once said, “If you build it…”, you know the rest.

Some of the brightest and darkest moments in conservation history have been the result of “unintended consequences.” The attempt to eradicate predators from the Kaibab National Forest in the 1920s was intended to boost deer numbers, but without predators to keep their population in check, deer numbers soared and then crashed, due to disease and starvation.  That’s a classic example of negative unintended consequences of human actions.  However, recent events prove that things can work the other way as well.

In the depths of the Great Depression, Missourians realized that letting the state legislature set hunting and fishing regulations had turned wildlife into a political football.  The results were disastrous.  Deer once had been so common that their hides were a standard unit of monetary value – the “buck.”  But by the 1930s, only a few hundred remained in the state.  Wild turkeys, fish, forests and other wild resources were all in similarly dismal condition.

Outrage over lawmakers’ squandering of the state’s natural legacy prompted citizens to take wildlife management out of politicians’ hands and vest it in an independent conservation agency, what we now call the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).  Within a few decades, deer once again were numerous enough to support carefully regulated hunting, not to mention today’s $1 billion deer-related recreation and tourism industry.  The story has been much the same for fish, forests and non-game wildlife.  Given a chance to heal, Missouri’s wild places have returned the favor by bouncing back.  In at least one instance, they have done so in a way that no one foresaw.

More than 60 years after the last known mountain lion was killed in Missouri in 1927, MDC reported a series of verified mountain lion sightings.  It started as a trickle.  In 1994, there was a tantalizing case where raccoon hunters killed a mountain lion.  They had a video showing the cat, but they got rid of the carcass before conservation agents apprehended them. In 1996 and 1997, two Missourians captured mountain lions on video.  In 1999 MDC’s Mountain Lion Response Team found tracks where rabbit hunters had reported seeing a cougar.

In the early 2000s, the trickle of verified reports grew to a steady stream, with video, photos and two road-killed mountain lions in four consecutive years.  In 2011, the stream swelled to a flood.  That year, MDC verified 14 mountain lion sightings.  This startling upswing probably was partly due to hunters increasing their use of game cameras, which accounted for half of the sightings.  2012 saw 11 more verified sightings, followed by eight in 2013.  The pace slackened a bit in subsequent years, possibly because the novelty of sightings wore off and people stopped reporting every new one.  Others might have kept sightings to themselves to protect the animals.

What accounts for the return of this top-level predator?  Mountain lions are simply taking advantage of Missouri’s success in restoring their No. 1 food item, white-tailed deer.  Young male mountain lions typically leave their birth areas to escape being killed by dominant adult males and establish their own territories elsewhere.  They can travel hundreds of miles while looking for unoccupied land with sufficient food and female mountain lions to mate with. Female mountain lions are more likely to stay where they were born.  Almost without exception, the mountain lions seen in Missouri have been young males.  This leads MDC to believe that the mountain lions seen here are transients, rather than part of an established, reproducing population.

Young male mountain lions find plenty of deer to eat in Missouri.  Finding mates has been a different matter.  Male cougars that don’t find females tend to keep moving, which accounts for the sporadic nature of documented sightings in Missouri.  Fourteen one year, fewer than half that number two years later.  Sightings scattered around the state. These facts, together with the absence of sightings of mountain lion cubs, was strong evidence that Missouri didn’t have a breeding population…yet.

Things took a new and exciting turn last month, when DNA testing revealed that an elk had been killed by a female mountain lion in Shannon County.  This was only the second confirmed female in Missouri.  The first was an animal whose pelt and head were recovered from a trash dump in Texas County in 1998.  Circumstantial evidence indicated that it might have escaped or been released from captivity.  It might not even have come from Missouri. So, the female cougar documented in Shannon County this year might reasonably be considered Missouri’s first truly free-ranging female mountain lion in 90 years.

This means Missouri could soon have a breeding mountain lion population.  If that happens, it would raise questions about MDC’s policy regarding mountain lions.  In 2006, the Missouri Conservation Commission responded to interest – and concerns – about continuing mountain lion sightings by doing two things.  One was to remove the mountain lion from the state’s endangered species list.  The Commission justified this action by saying that, since there was no evidence of a breeding population in Missouri, the species should more properly be considered extirpated.  This lumped mountain lions in with other species, such as moose and elk, which occasionally wandered into Missouri from other states, but were no longer endemic here.

The Commission’s other action was to issue a policy statement that “it is not desirable to allow the re-establishment of a mountain lion population in Missouri.”  The underlying assumption was that a breeding population of mountain lions was incompatible with Missouri’s level of human settlement.  In other words, Missouri simply didn’t have room enough for humans and their domestic animals to coexist with mountain lions.

I wonder about this.  Nebraska has had female mountain lions since at least 1991.  Breeding has been documented there and a female mountain lion was found in southeastern Nebraska last year.  Granted, Nebraska’s population density is roughly one-third that of Missouri, but the Cornhusker State isn’t exactly wilderness.  And in addition to its human population, Nebraska has 50 percent more cattle than Missouri, according to CattleNetwork.com.  And while wilderness is a scarce commodity in Missouri, it isn’t entirely absent.  The Mark Twain National Forest has seven designated wilderness areas in the Ozarks, encompassing more than 71,000 acres.  It probably is no coincidence that most Missouri’s mountain lion sightings have come from the Ozarks.

If Nebraskans can get along with mountain lions, maybe Missourians can too.  Nebraska held an experimental hunting season in 2015 and hunters harvested five mountain lions.  The hunt drew predictable opposition and the Nebraska Parks and Wildlife Commission is gathering more information about the state’s cougar population before offering another hunting season.  Carefully regulated hunting based on good science is the preferred method of managing wildlife populations in North America, which has a rich tradition of fair-chase hunting.  Missouri already has learned to live with black bears, some of which migrated into the state from Arkansas.  MDC deals with problem bears when necessary and the agency is currently laying the foundation for a science-based hunting season.  It will be prepared when bear numbers reach the point where hunting is sustainable and necessary to prevent unacceptable levels of bear-human conflict, just as it does with white-tailed deer

I understand the concern some Missourians have about allowing the development of a breeding population of mountain lions.  North America’s biggest cat is a formidable predator and you can’t blame parents and ranchers for being concerned.  But it is worth noting that Missouri has never had a documented mountain lion attack on humans.  Even in states with well-established mountain lion populations, attacks are extremely rare. And the Missouri Wildlife Code allows people to kill mountain lions that attack or kill humans, livestock or other domestic animals.

Personally, I’m thrilled to think that I might get to see a mountain lion in the wild here in Missouri.  And it goes against my grain to discourage a native species that is making a natural, unaided comeback as a result of our own work restoring the conditions in which it once thrived. Traffic fatalities resulting from deer-automobile collisions are a much bigger threat to human safety than mountain lion attacks, yet no one seriously suggests getting rid of deer.

I hope Shannon County’s female mountain lion finds a mate and raises a litter of cubs that live long, happy lives.  Imagine watching one of them slip through the woods as you sit in your deer stand.  For me, adding that dimension of wildness to Missouri’s outdoors is worth the minimal risks involved.